“I, James Blunt”, by Kenneth Fields

HV Morton did much to support Britain and the Allies during the Second World War. He was one of only two reporters selected to cover the historic meeting between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt, he served in a home-guard unit in his home village of Binstead and he risked life and limb to report on the London Blitz. Another of his contributions was the writing of the novella, “I, James Blunt”, told in the form of a diary kept by the eponymous Mr Blunt, in a fictional (but at the time all too possible) Nazi-Occupied Britain. Here Kenneth Fields, one of the foremost Morton scholars I know, gives us a little background to the story.

“I, James Blunt”

by Kenneth Fields

By 1941 the Ministry of Information, a government department that had been created at the outbreak of war, had grown to enormous size.

This propaganda organisation was concerned with all aspects of information management that was crucial to the national interest. It was given extensive powers, having control over the BBC, dissemination of information, press relations and news censorship. Its many separate divisions included a Home Intelligence Unit that prepared reports on the morale of the civilian population; a Films Division; and a Literary and Editorial Division that produced a range of booklets about the war. The Authors’ Section was housed in the University College buildings in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. For a period its head was novelist Graham Greene who worked alongside fellow writer Malcolm Muggeridge. With academic scepticism they both believed their work was of little importance and found the Ministry to be generally inefficient.

However, in spite of these misgivings Greene continued to take his duties seriously. One of his schemes involved approaching a number of well-known politicians and writers to ask if they would use their talents in writing a series of patriotic pamphlets and books. These famous names of the time included EM Delafield, Herbert Morrison, Vernon Bartlett, Dorothy Sayers, Howard Spring and HV Morton.

HVM accepted the challenge, returning to his home in Binsted, Hampshire to write what was destined to be his only published fictional work, “I, James Blunt”. In it he takes his reader forward to September 1944 to an England that has lost the war and is under Nazi rule. James Blunt is a retired tradesman who is living in the village of Foxton near Farnham (probably based on HVM’s own village of Binsted) and his diary reveals the terrible changes that the Occupation has brought. Dr. Goebbels is in charge of the Daily Express, all personal savings have been frozen and the Gestapo are ruthlessly enforcing the New Order in Britain. Buckingham Palace has a huge Swastika flag flying from its flagpole, Trafalgar Square has been renamed Hitler Square, Victoria Station is now Himmler Station, British workers are being transported to Germany and Scottish shipyards are building German warships to attack America. The fifty-six page paperback booklet ends with a message reminding the reader that the diary of James Blunt will remain fiction ‘as long as England condemns complacency.’

Graham Greene later recalled that Morton’s writing style was ‘a bit too popular to be good,’ and he needed to rewrite the booklet before publication, no doubt to make the aggressive propaganda message more apparent. But HVM, who had given his services free, so impressed Churchill with this publication that he was later invited to report on one of the most historic meetings of the war, which was later published as “Atlantic Meeting”.

Greene also pursued a similar theme with his story “The Lieutenant Died Last” that was published in Collier’s. This tale, that describes how a small band of German troops land in an English village prior to a full Nazi invasion, was later adapted by producer Alberto Cavalcanti for his classic film Went the Day Well that was released in 1942. And a more recent variation on the same theme was the popular film The Eagle has Landed.

Another important aspect in the battle to boost morale were the regular overseas short-wave broadcasts by the BBC. During these war years HVM gave regular talks on the African Service and wrote accompanying articles in the overseas BBC magazine, London Calling. In July 1942, to coincide with the publication of his booklet in the USA and Canada, he wrote about ‘James Blunt in Occupied Britain’. Here he explained the reason why he had written what was seen by many to be an unpleasant booklet full of gloom and despondency. He said that he firmly believed that the allies would win the war but it was important that the public were reminded of the real penalty of defeat.

(This article was originally circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note – No.6, on 22nd April, 2004)

Leave a comment

Filed under HV Morton in the media, Literature, Wartime

Christmas Greetings!

In the Steps of the MasterThe dustjacket, by EA Cox, of HV Morton’s “In the Steps of the Master

For this year’s Christmas bulletin I have taken the liberty of slightly condensing a passage from chapter four of “In the Steps of the Master” in which Morton, with his usual lyrical flare, contemplates some of the distinctions between the traditional European representation of Christmas and what might actually have taken place in ancient Palestine. I am grateful to Stephen Twist who suggested the idea.

In Bethlehem, Morton encounters a door – so low it requires everyone who enteres to stoop – set in a massive wall. On the other side of the door is the Church of the Nativity, “the earliest Christian church in use to-day, and more or less as it left the hands of its builders”.

img543 - A Bethlehem Mother, from In the Steps of the Master snip“A Bethlehem Mother”, photograph by Mary Morton

From there he descends to the cave beneath the high altar which, as he puts it, “tradition claims as the spot where Christ was born”. The exact location is marked with a star, surrounded by a Latin inscription.

§

“As I stood in this dark, pungent cavern I forgot, I am afraid, all the clever and learned things written about the Nativity by German professors, and I seemed to hear English voices singing under a frosty sky:—

“O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

“How different is this dark little cave under a church from the manger and the stable of one’s imagination! As a child, I thought of it as a thatched English barn with wooden troughs for oats and hay, and a great pile of fodder on which the Wise Men knelt to adore “the new-born Child.” Down the long avenues of memory I seemed to hear the waits singing in the white hush of Christmas night:—

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

“There was a rhythmic chinking sound on the dark stairs. A Greek priest, with a black beard curled like that of an Assyrian king, came slowly into the cavern swinging a censer. The incense rolled out in clouds and hung about in the candle flames. He censed the altar and the Star. Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, he genuflected and went up into the light of the church.

“… The grotto was full of little children, silently standing two by two on the stairs. They came forward, knelt down and quickly kissed the stone near the star. Their little faces were very grave in the candle-light. Some of them closed their eyes tightly and whispered a prayer.

“No sooner had the last of them gone, than I heard the chink-chink of the censer; and into the gloom of the Grotto of the Nativity came again a Greek priest like an Assyrian king.”

§

A very happy Christmas and a good New Year.

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

4 Comments

Filed under Christmas, HV Morton, Literature, Quotations

The BBC Listener Magazine, 7th June 1945

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.247, 8 December 2019

The BBC’s Listener magazine was published weekly from the 16th January 1929 and was described by the Guardian as one of the most distinguished publications in British journalism. It was intended to expand on the topics of various BBC broadcasts in a way that wasn’t possible in the programmes themselves or in the BBC’s listings magazine, the Radio Times. In its early days it was an eclectic publication which reflected the BBC’s cultural ideals but changes in society were mirrored by a change in editorial policy as ownership of the magazine was taken out of the BBC’s hands in the late 1980’s. As a result of this change and increasing competition the publication ceased production in 1991, after a total of 3,197 issues.

In the summer of 1945, shortly after Germany’s surrender at the end of the second world war in Europe, the 7th of June edition of The Listener was delivered to the MacKenzie household at number nine (price threepence). I have no idea who the MacKenzie family were or in which street number nine was but I am forever grateful to them as, nearly 65 years later, their extremely well preserved copy of volume 33, number 856, found its way to me in Glastonbury (price – a lot more than threepence), complete with their name and number written in pencil at the top right corner of the cover.

As if to illustrate how little some things have changed, the first article of this edition (on page 619) is entitled The Levant: its People and their Problems. Section one, The Place, is written by popular travel writer of the time and recognised authority on the region in question, HV Morton.

It is perhaps not one of HVM’s finest pieces of writing but nevertheless it is fascinating to see him simply as part of popular culture, someone who had done so much to bring the countries under discussion to the attention of readers in Britain and the US, commenting on the affairs of the day in the same way that others, including Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop, would do in later editions. Of course, Morton had recently also contributed to the allied war effort in the middle east and North Africa by publishing his condensed (“light enough to be carried in a haversack”) volume “Middle East” and later another similar paperback version, “Travels in Palestine and Syria” which was specifically intended for issue to the troops in that region.

The cover of Morton’s “Middle East” depicting a window overlooking Aleppo.

I have included the text below for your interest along with a few pictures and advertisments from the magazine which give a feel for the time it was written as well as adding to the enjoyment of looking back at history in this way!

§

The Levant: its People and their Problems
I—The Place
By H. V. MORTON
(from: The Listener vol. 33, no. 856, 7th June 1945)

SYRIA and Palestine are, geographically speaking, one. Syria is the north; Palestine is the south. They are much the same to look at; a thick central spine of barren mountains sloping away on the east to a vast desert and on the west to fertile plains washed by the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is much larger than Palestine (which is only a little narrow strip of a country), but the greater part of Syria is desert stretching eastwards for about two hundred miles to the Euphrates and Iraq.

When you leave Galilee and start to climb up the Syrian frontier you see ahead of you a grand mass of mountains topped by Mount Hermon wearing a white cap of snow. This mountain dominates the whole country and snow lies on it all the year round. At the frontier you see a little stream tumbling out of a cavern. This is the eastern source of the Jordan, which flows south through Palestine into the Dead Sea. And when you cross the frontier you are in Colonial France.

Now history. Syria has always been the trackway for migrations and for every conqueror who has ever broken loose. The Egyptian Pharaohs marched across it from the south; the Babylonians and the Assyrians from the east; Alexander the Great came across it from the north. So did the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks. This means that Syria is scattered with the most wonderful collection of ruins you could find anywhere, from vast temples like Baalbek and complete ruined cities like Palmyra, to the superb castles which the Crusaders built on the tops of the mountains. And they built them as if to last for ever.

Palestine is the land of the Gospel; Syria is the land of the primitive Church. St. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. He gained new vision in the Street called Straight, which is still to be seen in that city. The Church that was at Antioch was the first missionary Church (by the way Antioch is now part of Turkey but geographically and historically it is Syria). Another wonderful sight in Syria is about a dozen complete desolate Byzantium cities lying out in the sand. And there is the lovely ruined Church of Kalaat Semain built round the pillar on the top of which St. Simon Stylites spent his life. Syria was the home of those strange early ascetics—the Pillar Saints.

Now the towns: what are they like—Beirut is the great port. It is a large white city on a fine bay, with the Lebanon rising at the back. Damascus: a city of minarets and domes in the middle of a large flat orchard, sometimes ablaze with apricot blossom. Commerce and bargaining are in the very air. You have only to admire a carpet in the bazaar to find it in your bedroom on approval when you get back to the hotel. Aleppo: a lovely Arab city with a bright little chromium-plated French town built round it. But go into the dark covered bazaars of Aleppo and you slip into the Arabian Nights. In the plain of Aleppo are clusters of strange Arab villages. Each house is a mud cone painted white. The villages look like clusters of fifty or a hundred eggs in an egg-rack—if you can imagine such a sight. When a polite Arab invites you inside to drink a cup of coffee you discover that these mud houses are as clean as a Dutch dresser. Homs and Hama are two purely Arab towns on the railway. They are always full of camels and donkeys and street markets. They smell of the Eastern Desert. Then there is Tripoli, a big port north of Beirut and Lattaqieh (where the tobacco comes from) and Tyre and Sidon.

One leaves Syria with an impression of great brown mountains, vast sandy deserts, sunny orange-groves near the sea, old gentlemen in Turkish fezes smoking hookahs under palm trees, silent, dead cities, ruined temples built of the most lovely honey-coloured stone, minarets, domes, and busy cities full of life and colour.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor

2 Comments

Filed under HV Morton in the media, Magazine Articles, Quotations, Travel

Under Waterloo Bridge by Rob Jeffries

The floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge, complete with police launch.

Henry Vollam Morton is one of my favourite authors. He was a widely travelled journalist and from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s he recorded his wanderings in a series of beautifully written travel books. His style was simple and elegant. He wrote short descriptive chapters about anything that took his interest and his legacy is a fascinating insight into a society that was rapidly changing from the old ways to the world that we know today. His books on London in particular, written between the wars, shine a fascinating light on a city that we will never see again.

H.V. Morton’s “The Nights of London

Morton seems to have had a particular affinity for the River Thames and its police force proved to be a rich source of material for him. He wrote about them on more than one occasion. In his book “The Nights of London” he recalls a visit he paid in the 1920’s to the floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge (now Tower Pier RNLI Station – the busiest in the country) and the conversation he had with the sergeant on duty. As a retired Thames police officer myself who served for many years at Waterloo Pier, I can almost feel the ghosts of serving officers past looking over my shoulder as I read his words – and my, how times change.

“I know of few more dramatic places in London than the Suicide Room of this police raft; the bed ready, the bath ready, the cordials ready. The little dinghy with the rubber roller on the stern, its nose pointed to the dark arches.”

Waterloo Bridge in July 1937, as seen from Cleopatra’s Needle and complete with contemplative young lady (The floating pier can just be seen under the arch on the left).

The sergeant being interviewed recalled one particular rescue. “We heard a splash and we were there in a second. She was a good looking, nice spoken young girl but she did want to die. I have never seen anyone who wanted to die so much. She fought and told us to go away. What right have we got to come and interfere with her private affairs?” The sergeant went on to describe how the ensuing struggle almost led to the small boat being swamped by the river before they managed to land her at the pier at around 3am. This sad tale then took a twist that plainly amused Morton.

The floating pier with Somerset House in the background

The sergeant described how they needed to put this attractive young lady in the bath to warm her up and apparently in those days a police matron needed to be summoned from Bow Street police station to deal with female patients. But, on this occasion, she was not available to attend. This left the police crew with an awkward problem – after all, the officers on duty were all unmarried men and not used to such jobs as undressing young ladies. Morton queried the sergeant that surely it would have been ok to assist the woman in these exceptional circumstances but our shy and bashful young sergeant was adamant, “You can’t be too careful, how did we know that she would not turn nasty for having her life saved and complain that she had been treated disrespectfully?

Thames Police rescue someone from the river (not the young lady in question!)

Fortunately for all concerned this tricky problem was resolved. It seems that the police pier in those days employed a “Handy Man” called Sam, and Sam was quickly summoned and informed that because he was the only suitably qualified man present (in that he had at some point in his life been married) He would have to undress the patient – a task he apparently performed without question.

Struggling to suppress his amusement that London’s finest, so often accused of callousness, could be so demure in its behaviour Morton completed his interview with a last few questions:

“And is that the end of the story?”

“Yes”

“Did she complain?”

“No, she didn’t”

“And why did she jump?”

“I think it was love”

As Morton left and walked along Victoria Embankment he wrote “I glanced back from the Embankment and saw the Thames heavy with the secrets it has carried to the sea these thousand years; and in the sky was a remote half moon lying on the curve in a ridiculous and careless attitude, as if London did not mean anything.

This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.170 on 1st August, 2014

2 Comments

Filed under HV Morton, Literature, London, Quotations

The Soul of Scotland

HV Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” was first published in 1929. A year later a section of chapter two was reproduced in a pamphlet, “The Soul of Scotland”, a guide for visitors to the Scottish National War Shrine in Edinburgh Castle, something which Morton said he found it more difficult to write about than anything he had ever attempted to describe. This publication is now possibly the rarest piece of Mortoniana there is and I thought this excerpt from it would be a fitting one for today’s post.

If you mount the Castle Rock in Edinburgh you will find the Soul of Scotland. Men call it the National War Shrine…

AS I stood inarticulate before the Shrine a thought came to me which was like a light. I was, not so long ago, in Ypres at the opening of the Menin Gate. It was a fine day with a wind blowing over the old front line. When the gate was declared open Scots pipers mounted high on the ramparts played the ‘Flowers o’ the Forest’.

No man at that moment dared to look into another man’s eyes. It was one of life’s terrible moments. The lament sobbed its grand way out along the road to Hooge, it wailed its way, sobbing, sobbing, ‘the flowers o’ the forest are a’ wede awae’ into every little dip and hollow where the corn now grows. . . .

It seemed to me, as I stood in Scotland’s Shrine, that the sound of this lament had flown home to crystallize in stone upon the rock of Edinburgh. The Shrine is a lament in stone, the greatest of all Scotland’s laments, with all the sweetness of pipes crying among hills, with all the haunting beauty of a lament, all the pride, all the grandeur.

I think the Cenotaph in London and the National Shrine in Edinburgh are the most remarkable symbols in existence of the temperamental difference between the two nations. One is Saxon and inarticulate; the other is Celtic and articulate. Grief locks the English heart, but it opens the Scottish. The Celt has a genius for the glorification of sorrow. All his sweetest songs are sad ; all his finest music is sad ; all his greatest poetry springs from tragedy.

That is why Scotland has built the greatest war memorial in the world.

THE ‘Flowers o’ the Forest’ have all turned to stone.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, England
Sunday, 10 November 2019

(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.244)

2 Comments

Filed under Armistice day, Quotations

The Atlantic Charter Commemorated

On the morning of Saturday the 2nd August 1941, at a time when the fate of free Europe hung in the balance, HV Morton was summoned to a meeting with the Minister of Information in London. The reasons why were not disclosed, but the author was certain only events of great importance could have caused such exceptional activity from a Government department during a Bank Holiday week-end.

A few days later, barely having had time to pack, Morton, along with fellow journalist Howard Spring (the only two journalists to be selected to provide eye-witness testimony of what was about to unfold), was aboard British battleship the Prince of Wales as it raced across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. They were in the company of a group of other warships and some of the highest ranking Government and military officials of the day including the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill himself. This daring convoy, under constant threat of U-boat and aerial attack, was heading for one of the most important meetings of the Second World War. At their destination, an anchorage off the small fishing village of Ship Harbour, Placentia Bay, Churchill was to hold talks with none other than US President Franklin D Roosevelt in what came to be known as the Atlantic Charter meeting, after the eight point document which was hammered out between the respective parties.

(Courtesy of Parks Canada)

The rest, quite literally, is history and Morton later recorded the events for posterity in his book “Atlantic Meeting”, published on 1st April 1943. It is no exaggeration to say that this coming together of great minds helped turn the tide of the war and provided a framework for the formation of the United Nations in the years following.

The Atlantic Charter Foundation is a group established to commemorate and celebrate this event and their website has much useful information including lists of participants, the ships involved, and photographs of objects and locations pertinent to the subject. In 1976 Parks Canada recognized the closest parcel of land to the site where the warships moored during the meeting as a National Historic Site.

Interestingly, Chartwell, Churchill’s former country home in Kent is now a National Trust property and, I am told, has a copy of Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting” in a showcase in one of the rooms. So that’s another location on my “places to visit” list!

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, UK

(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets No.242)

1 Comment

Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Wartime

Churchill and the Movie Mogul…

… and HV Morton!

John Fleet is a documentary film maker who joined the HV Morton society in November 2017. At the time he told us he was nearing completion of a film about Winston Churchill and his voyage on the HMS Prince of Wales for the Atlantic Charter meeting. He was hoping to use a passage from Morton’s book “Atlantic Meeting” in the film and was trying to decide who would make the best voice-over artist for the readings. I was pleased to be able to help by pointing him to a few of the recordings of Morton’s voice that are available online.

The first edition cover of HV Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting”.

Yesterday I heard once more from John with some very positive news:

Dear Niall,
I hope you are well. I have been enjoying receiving the updates from the HV Morton society. He is indeed a fascinating writer and I am trying to find time to read more.
As per our previous exchange, I have now completed a documentary film called
Churchill and the Movie Mogul, which includes a substantial and poignant passage from HV Morton’s “Atlantic Meeting”. It involves a film-showing that Morton attended with Winston Churchill.
I thought it might be worth flagging up to members that the film is now on BBC iPlayer and will be available until October 25th. Without giving too much away, the HV Morton passage represents a vital part of the narrative.
You can find more details about the film here: www.januarypictures.com
I do hope this is of interest
[no question of that! Ed] and I send you all my best wishes,
John

Unfortunately, from past experience, it is likely that folks outside the UK will be unable to access the BBC iPlayer streaming service but John has promised to keep us posted if the programme ever becomes available further afield.

I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the programme myself but I wanted to get this bulletin out in time for people to watch it online before the deadline of the 25th of this month. I have already received an unsolicited report about it from HVM Society member Richard Maund however, who reports it is a ‘fascinating biopic’. I would be most interested to hear if anyone else has other comments on John’s work, described by critics as ‘expertly crafted’ and ‘captivating’.

(Originally issued as HVM Society Snippets – No.240)

Leave a comment

Filed under HV Morton, Literature